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China plans to slowly ease coronavirus restrictions across the country after the eruption of mass protests against the government’s strict “zero Covid” strategy and the state funeral of a former leader, the Washington Post reported.
Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who heads China’s coronavirus response efforts, said Friday that the nation was taking “baby steps” in extricating itself from its three-year pursuit of “zero covid.” She added that the country was now facing a “new reality” as the virus poses a lesser threat than before.
While China’s strict coronavirus rules – which include mass testing campaigns and snap lockdowns in regions – have helped save many lives, officials said, it has also slowed the economy and fomented resentment among the Chinese people.
Public anger escalated last month following a deadly fire in the provincial capital of the northwestern region of Xinjiang: Many believed coronavirus restrictions led to increased casualties.
The fire in Urumqi prompted demonstrations against officials that later spread to other major cities, including Beijing and Shanghai.
The protests have been considered the largest since the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989. Censors have stepped up efforts to hide videos, photos, and other online posts about the protests, including blocking access to virtual private networks.
Officials have not directly acknowledged the protests even as they have blamed foreign influences and labeled protesters as separatists.
Even so, some large cities moved to lift lockdowns and ease other measures following the protests. Meanwhile, observers noted that Sun’s comments indicated a clear sign that the government was moving to end its controversial “zero Covid” strategy.
The increased caution comes as the country mourns the death of former leader Jiang Zemin, who died Wednesday.
China’s leaders are wary of the period following the death of a prominent official. The Tiananmen Square protests, for example, erupted following the death of Hu Yaobang, a liberal-minded Communist Party leader.
While Jiang was not a liberal reformer, he was considered to be more open-minded and tolerant than the current leader Xi Jinping.